In his comfortable living room, Mario Canedo puts peaceful Latin music on the stereo. He mixes a batch of margaritas.
Canedo has invited five gay Hispanic men to talk about safe sex. All of the men were born in Mexico, and they settled in the Kansas City area, the earliest one immigrating in the late 1980s. All are younger than Canedo, 38, a fit man with white-flecked hair, a soul patch and an understated charisma.
There's a stack of flavored condoms on a footstool, and Canedo gives each man a flesh-colored dildo to practice on. A grocery bag on the floor is filled with more condoms. One man laughingly pockets a handful, the brightly colored wrappers poking through his fingers.
One fashionable man in his early 30s, still wearing his dark overcoat as he drinks his second margarita, waves a dildo in the condom thief's face. There's a lot of laughter and fast talking as everyone loosens up over the tequila.
Canedo does his best to keep the discussion serious while he laughs along with his guests. This is a more open conversation than most of these men ever had when they were in Mexico. "What it means to be a man is very strict in our families," Canedo says. "No one talks about being gay or bisexual, or almost anything about sex. You grow up afraid and not knowing a lot."
They still have misconceptions. Canedo explains that rimming can be dangerous, and the men seem surprised.
"How do you say this?" Canedo asks, trying to translate the conversation so a Pitch reporter can understand the Spanish. "Black kiss? If there's a cut or a sore, it's dangerous."
He takes out dental dams, also flavored, and passes them around. The dildo waver unwraps a grape dam and pokes his tongue into it, the purple material straining to accommodate. He shakes his head and tosses it aside. "I don't like it. I don't like the black kiss anyway."
Everyone working to prevent the spread of HIV in Kansas City agrees that new infections are on the rise in minority communities, and until fairly recently, Hispanics were considered the most unreachable group. That's partly because of cultural taboos surrounding any discussion of sex — especially homosexual sex — and partly because it's hard to find the Hispanic men who are at risk. Canedo says most gay Hispanics don't frequent the club scene, and there aren't any clubs that cater to them, so they often rent out hotels for parties instead. Canedo meets people there and invites them to educational discussions at his home.
"A lot of men that show up to the parties have girlfriends or wives," he says of the men who frequent the hotel circuit. "They just don't want to be seen as that way [gay]. And because they hide it, they don't plan, so they don't use protection. If you don't use protection, you get sick."
Canedo started this work in 2007, when the Good Samaritan Project hired him as a community prevention specialist. It had just received a grant from the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department for Hispanic outreach and prevention services.
"I don't think anyone had made progress in this area, trying to bring gay and bisexual Hispanics together," says Paul Showalter, the organization's director of development. The Good Samaritan Project is a nonprofit that provides support and programs for people infected or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
"When we got the grant, we were told we couldn't be successful. It was a common idea that Hispanics are not interested in this subject and you can't bring them together to discuss it," Showalter says. "Because of Mario, we've had major breakthroughs. He's engaging hundreds of people, in the course of a year, we wouldn't engage otherwise. And things started to open up."